Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Focus on the Words

I'll return to my other flow of posts in a bit, but in the meantime Dron has responded to my last four, and there are some things worth addressing.

In particular, he complains about my focusing sometimes on single paragraphs and even sentences - "out of context," he says. But from where I sit, you can't just use words as though they have any meaning you want - or no fixed meaning at all - without getting some of this analytical treatment in response. But I'll elaborate.

The Family of Ideas

There is a very large difference between his characterization this time of the 'family of ideas' as compared to what we saw last time.

Last time: "about how to learn in a networked society, all of which adopt a systems view, all of which recognize the distributed nature of knowledge, all of which embrace the role of mediating artefacts, all of which recognize that more is different, all of which adopt a systems perspective, all of which describe or proscribe ways to engage in this new ecology."

This time: "family of theories aligned by a number of common themes (such as connectedness, networks, emergence, distributed intelligence, knowledge in non-human entities, etc) and sharing a common purpose (largely making sense of what that entails)"

These are very different. The first describes (as I pointed out in another post) a list of things very different from what I would consider to be connectivist. The second picks up on themes much more consistent with the concept. But I think this is incidental - for Dron, what seems to be more important is whether connectivism is one theory or a family of theories.

To me, it's an odd position to take. Dron writes, "I have no major problems with it if it (the Downes version of connectivism) is presented as one of a number of relevant theories in the family of connectivist ideas." But if I set as my target the articulation of what is actually the case in learning, and what actually works, then his position is very different.

"I have far greater problems accepting Downes's theory as a definitive account of what ‘connectivism' actually refers to," he says. Instead, he writes, "my (Dron's) intent is to keep the field open, to allow for multiple interpretations and acceptance of alternative perspectives around the central core."

My perspective is this: if Dron wants to have the freedom to assert a bunch of theories I consider wrong, then I think he is free to do that. But that's not what he wants. He wants me to present my theory in such a ways that (a) it includes his theories, whatever they are, and (b) doesn't make a judgment as to the rightness of what I am saying versus the wrongness of what he is saying.

My response to Dron is something like: why do you need this name? Why don't you go out and get your own name? Of course, he suggests that, since George coined the name, then I have no more right to it than he does. If so, then he and George can go fight it out, and leave me out of it. But from my perspective, the name George coined ten years ago described what he and I were doing at the time, which was (and is) largely the same sort of thing, and has not somehow since then become something else.

You might ask, what's in a name? But that's why we get back to precision and what words mean. In different theories words mean different things, and if he doesn't even agree with me about what words mean, it seems unreasonable for him to be saying he is proposing the same theory, or even 'more or less' the same theory.

From my perspective, it's like an advocate of intelligent design being asked to be called an evolutionist, on the basis that we talk about the same sort of thing. My response is, if it's up to me, I'm not going to call you an evolutionist, because you don't actually support evolution.

Embracing and Distorting

Dron says,  "As it has emerged in recent years, it looks as though the word 'connectivism' is acquiring a common usage that embraces but extends (and often distorts) the views of Siemens and Downes. In my opinion this is, in process terms, a good thing, though I do recognize that this is arguable and that this is fundamentally what the argument is about."

Quite so.

But the fact that (say we say) people are "distorting" the theory I originally proposed (or that George originally prposed) does not entail that I should (a) accept that those are a version of`what I originally proposed, (b) accept that they are just as true as what I originally proposed, and (c) call them by the same name as what I originally proposed.

Let's call them what they are: not similar to what was actually proposed, and in fact distortions of the meaning and intent of the term and theory.

Dron argues, " a broader, more inclusive definition means that it is easier to straddle boundaries, cross-pollinate ideas, exploit diversity, and find connection and commonality where there might otherwise be ignorance."

What to me that means is that it makes it easier for people who are not actually connectivists to claim that they are connectivists, and to assume for themselves whatever popularity and support the theory has obtained over the years.

Moreover, you don't need to call two theories by the same name in order to cross-pollinate ideas, exploit diversity, and find connection and commonality. For example, I would say that a lot of this has taken place between connectivists and constructivists. But that doesn't mean we should start calling them the same theory.

Dron makes the point, "The issues are not dissimilar to those surrounding, for example, the word ‘constructivism’, as it is used in an educational context"

Both George Siermens and I have made the point that it makes it pretty much impossible to talk about constructivism. Every time we identify something about constructivism we disagree with, someone comes along and ways "well there's this version of constructivism that doesn't do it that way."

The term "constructivism" has become so broad as to be almost meaningless. There has been no clearly defined theory toward which investigators could get close and closer. Anyone who claimed to be a constructivist was counted as such. At a certain point, there is no theory with which people can say they agree or disagree. It becomes a fuzzy political movement, not science (which is what makes it so easy for wags like Kirschner and Willingham to assail).

Dron says he "posted a rough first-try at making sense of my own understanding of connectivism last week." I applaud him for the effort. But I reserve the right to say he got it wrong. Not because I am some kind of 'arbiter of meaning'. But because I believe that the theory he asserted (whatever he calls it) is wrong.

No argument that people have 'distorted' either the name of the theory or the theory itself compells me to change my stance on that. The only thing that would would be were Dron's characterization of the theory empirically correct, and he has attempted no such defense.

Systems and Networks, Redux

To wit: his various descriptions of networks as 'systems'. Which is exactly the sort of thing I mean. It is, first, not what was ever intended by connectivism, and second, empirically wrong (ie., networks that learn are not systems).

Here's Dron's defense: "He (Downes) has a very different view of the definition of a system than the one that I hold, or the one that people who talk about weather systems, planetary systems, nervous systems and ecosystems hold."

He then attempts a positive account: "My view of systems is that they are concerned with the ways that networked entities (including other systems) interact with and affect one another, and the consequent emergent and/or designed behaviours that we can observe within them. They are concerned with connected parts that affect one or more other connected parts, be they molecules in a cloud, people in a social network, neurons, planets, stars, blood vessels or networked computers."

This is a better version but is again a very different story from the one he gave just a few days ago, using a very different vocabulary.

But there's a looseness - a sloppiness - that makes it impossible to characterize as connectivist. What does it mean to say that "systems are concerned with..."? I'm sure he doesn't mean that systems are sentient entities that have problems, thoughts and concerns. Maybe he means that the term 'system' is coextensive with the term 'networked entities that interact... (etc).' Or maybe not. We just don't know.

He says, "If that doesn't make them pretty firmly and squarely in the centre of a field concerned with how entities affect other entities in a network then it is hard to see what could."

The problem is that connectivism is not "a field concerned with how entities affect other entities in a networ." That's a terrible statement of what connectivism is. It's like saying that, because "connectivism is concerned with learning" and "fascism is concerned with learning," that "connectivism is fascism." Sorry. It's not.

Dron is today saying he wasn't proposing a systems theory of learning, yet just last week, the words, terminology and concepts were all drawn from that theory. What this tells me is that he's coming from a very different perspective. He can deny it all he wants, but his words betray him.

That's why I focus on the words.

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